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Food for Thought
Time to Forage
This is the time of year I dust off my baskets and buckets, don my stained, long-sleeved shirt, and hit the road. I just love getting something for nothing, and free fruit is out there waiting for me!
If you are an urban dweller you won't have as many choices as I, but in August and September here in Eastern Washington there are elderberries, huckleberries, wild strawberries, chokecherries, and abandoned homesteads full of apples and pears. If you have a wetter climate, blackberries should be ripening along the roadsidesor maybe in your backyard.
Huckleberries are my absolute favorite. Red huckleberries are found in yards and on hiking trails at low elevations. I've eaten my share of them, but doubt that I actually enjoyed them. Apart from the occasional sweet berry, most red huckleberries are very tart, though I fondly remember eating them in pancakes at camp.
Mountain huckleberries, however, are a beautiful bluish-purple, sweet and delicious, looking very much like blueberries. To find them you will have to head up into the mountains to a higher elevation. We have found berries at 3,500 feet, but the best picking is at 5,000 feet. Ask around to find a good location. Most people will give you a general area, but aren't willing to divulge "their" spot. These babies are just too precious to share! Around here they go for up to $60 a gallon. Personally, I wouldn't even sell them for that. It takes a very long time to pick a gallon of huckleberries.
I make huckleberry jam and syrup, and freeze quarts of them for use in muffins (recipe below), pancakes, meat glazes, breads, and salads. Though I love giving jars of fruit jam as gifts, I'm pretty stingy when it comes to my jars of huckleberry jam.
The berries grow on low, thornless bushes . . . easy on the fingers, but not so easy on the back. They can hide under leaves, so walk around a bush and look at it from different angles to make sure you haven't missed any. My husband's method is to pick all of the really big ones and then move on. I'm a steady picker, preferring to clean a bush. Our dog likes to put her mouth over a branch and pull the berries off from the bottom!
And . . . be careful. Bears love huckleberries, too. Go picking in a group and make lots of noise. If you see signs of bears in the area (scat, torn up tree stumps), you may want to move on to a different location. Pick during the middle of the day when bears are less active, but remember that their favorite midday napping spot can be right in the middle of their favorite berry patch! Always be aware of your surroundings. I have a can of bear spray on my hip, and I'm not afraid to use it!
Near the huckleberry patches you will probably find wild strawberries. These are tiny little berries that are incredibly sweet and flavorful. I am not patient enough to try to pick them for jam, but love to sit down and eat them on the spot. They're hard to see at first; you have to really look for them. The fruit is only about the size of your little fingernail, but the flavor just explodes in your mouth.
Elderberries are everywhere, usually growing near a stream or creek, or on the side of a road. The elderberry bush can get really large, looking more like a tree than a bush. They have clusters of flowers in early summer, which are supposed to be delicious battered and fried, or made into wine, which I haven't triedyet. Around here the berries start to ripen in August. They're a lovely dark blue, with a coating of white. If they feel soft to the touch, and there aren't many green berries in a cluster, they're ready to pick. Take pruning shears with you and just cut off the clusters. It will only take minutes to fill a five-gallon bucket. Speaking from experience, don't get carried away. Just take what you think you'll be able to process. Gathering them is the easy part.
When you get your berries home, fill the buckets up with cold water and let them soak for a while to remove any bugs. Now, find a good movie and sit down with a towel and large bowl on your lap, a fork in your hand, a garbage bag at your side, and the bucket of berries within easy reach. The branches of the elderberry bush are toxic. You do not want any branches in your bowl of berries. The tiny stems on each berry won't hurt you. I'm a little obsessive about it and don't even like stems in my bowl, but if you're making jam or syrup they will be strained out in the process, so they really aren't a problem.
Using your fork, start from the base of each branch and gently push the berries off the branch and into the bowl, discarding any green berries. If some berries eluded the fork, just pluck them off by hand. Sounds simple, right? Now do this a thousand times. Or more, depending on how many buckets of berries you brought home! Your fingers will get cold, blue, and look like prunes, but in the end you'll have a beautiful bowl of incredibly nutritious berries. There are conflicting opinions about eating the berries rawsome say it's safe to eat a few of them if they're fully ripe, while others advise to always cook them first. I admit I've tried them raw with no ill effects, but to be safe I recommend that you cook them into jam or syrup. The flavor is indescribable.
Elderberries are high in antioxidants and vitamins, and have antiviral properties. Taking elderberry syrup during flu season can help reduce your chance of getting sick. If you do get sick, it can help shorten the duration of the illness. For more information, see the article, Black Elderberry Benefits. Here is a video about making elderberry syrup using dried, fresh, or frozen elderberries: How to Make Elderberry Syrup. I like to add a little brandy to the bottle of syrup if I have a cough. *Hack. Cough. Ahem.*
Blackberries are a gardener's nightmare, and a forager's dream. The bushes can take over a beautifully manicured yard quickly, and they are thorny, stubborn, and very hard to remove. I would avoid picking the berries on the side of the road in a high-traffic area because of vehicle exhaust and the possibility that they may have been sprayed with an herbicide. Stick to the back roads or fields and fill those buckets with berries! They are large, plentiful, and easy to pick. They are also loaded with bees, spiders, and stinging nettles. Go prepared with long sleeves and heavy pants. You might also want to take a small rake to pull down the branches just beyond your reach that always have the biggest, juiciest berries.
Did you know that the blackberries you've been picking may not be blackberries at all, but wild raspberries? They look almost identical, but there are two distinguishing features. The wild raspberry is hollow when it is pulled off the vine, but the blackberry is solid. Wild raspberries have fine hairs on them, but blackberries are smooth. Whatever you call them, they're a very dark purple, juicy, and delicious. I can almost smell the cobbler baking!
Chokecherries ripen in late August or early September. They have to be monitored closely, because the moment they're ripe the birds eat them. I'm so busy in the garden and kitchen that I usually miss that moment and have still not managed to make chokecherry jam. Here is an article to help you identify themI hope that you're luckier (or more attentive) than I: How to Identify Chokecherries in the Wild.
Since they are very sour, chokecherries are usually made into jam or syrup. They are packed with antioxidants, which protect your cells from free radicals. The Central European Journal of Biology published research comparing chokecherries to strawberries, serviceberries, raspberries, and wild blueberries and found that chokecherries had by far the highest amount of antioxidants.
We have a small orchard, but it is young and doesn't produce enough fruit for canning. We are, however, surrounded by abandoned homesteads with enormous old fruit trees. The fruit isn't cared for, so it isn't necessarily pretty, but it can be used for sauces and butters. The urban parallel to this would be to look for neighbors with loaded trees and ask if they are planning to harvest the fruit. With luck, they haven't sprayed chemicals on the trees and are willing to share or barter. An elderly neighbor might be relieved to have someone pick the fruit before it falls to the ground. Picking is fun and thrifty, and you won't be getting fruit that has been sitting in a warehouse for months.
Berries and fruit can be dried, canned, frozen, baked into treats, or just eaten fresh. I love my trusty Ball Blue Book, but I often use the Internet for ideas on preserving the more unusual berries. Make sure that any preservation method you find online is current and safe. Avoid any recipes that start out: "Here's my great-grandmother's recipe . . ."!
And remember, this is only August. In the fall there are mushrooms, hazelnuts, and rose hips ready to be picked. Happy foraging!
Clip art courtesy of Microsoft Office
For more information
Many websites help you identify wild berries. Here are two sites that I find helpful:
These muffins won a blue ribbon at our county fair.
Wild Mountain Huckleberry Muffins
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Mix together well and add water if needed to thin:
Contact Lorinda at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.
Food for Thought copyright 2013.